- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2000

SUNNYVALE, Calif. William J. Bennett, the former secretary of education and author of "The Book of Virtues," yesterday broke with his longtime ally in the culture wars, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, for "selling out" to Hollywood and for failing to condemn a joke, mocking faith in Christ, at a Democratic fund-raiser.
Mr. Bennett, together with several other conservative Christian leaders, had stoutly defended the Connecticut senator for six weeks after Vice President Al Gore selected him as his running mate. But after reading news accounts yesterday that Mr. Lieberman had assured entertainment executives on Monday that he would merely "nudge" them away from marketing sex and violence to children, Mr. Bennett withdrew his support.
The senator was rebuked as well by Jewish leaders who said he had misrepresented his own faith in a national radio interview.
Mr. Bennett was particularly angered that Mr. Lieberman sat by while "Seinfeld" executive producer Larry David mocked Christian faith with a joke at a star-studded $4.2 million Democratic fund-raiser in Beverly Hills., Calif.
Mr. David, who is Jewish, said: "Like [Texas Gov. George W.] Bush, I too found Christ in my 40s. He came into my room one night, and I said: 'What, no call? You just pop in?' "
The joke amounts to "ridiculing Christianity and reducing it to the level of Borscht-belt humor," Mr. Bennett said in a telephone interview last night.
Mr. Lieberman's decision not to leave the fund-raiser at the home of supermarket millionaire Ron Burkle was a tacit endorsement of the joke, Mr. Bennett said.
"You've got to walk out. At least you've got to say, 'Gentlemen, this isn't the kind of thing we should be talking about or making fun of,' " Mr. Bennett said. "I can't tell you how disappointed I am in Joe Lieberman."
Mr. Lieberman's spokesman said last night that her boss meant no disrespect.
"Joe Lieberman has a great respect for persons of faith and he would never agree with anyone who would make disparaging remarks about someone else's faith," Jodi Sakol said.
Mr. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, ran into flak from several rabbis for his interpretation of Jewish doctrine. On Friday, radio and television interviewer Don Imus asked Mr. Lieberman whether Judaism places a ban on "interracial or interreligious marriage or dating or that sort of thing."
The Connecticut senator replied: "No, there is no ban whatsoever. Certainly not on interracial. And not on interreligious."
Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, disputed Mr. Lieberman's interpretation. He told Binyamin L. Jolkovsky of www.JewishWorldReview.com, an Internet news site, that there is "a clear and irrevocable Torah prohibition" against a Jew marrying someone of another faith.
"It has nothing to do with race, as anyone from any ethnicity can become a Jew if he or she is sincerely motivated and willing to undergo Halachic conversion."
Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman lauded the entertainment industry at the Hollywood fund-raiser, a week after they denounced Hollywood for peddling sex and violence to children.
"Al and I have tremendous respect for this industry," Mr. Lieberman told the 300 in attendance. Mr. Lieberman softened his earlier criticism, saying he and Mr. Gore, a Southern Baptist who also sat through the mocking joke, would merely serve as occasional critics or "nudges," a Yiddish term for gentle naggers.
But Mr. Bennett insisted that his old friend could take no money from Hollywood in good conscience if he held to his position. "They are then giving money to him despite his criticism."
But "when the money comes out and you get soft, and the voice changes and the tone changes and the words change, then that's called selling out," said Mr. Bennett.
Mr. Lieberman's spokeswoman said the senator and Mr. Gore "have told the industry directly that if they don't clean up their act, they are prepared to support tougher measures to hold the industry accountable."
Mr. Lieberman "has worked with Mr. Bennett on many things that [Mr. Lieberman] is proud of," she said. "In this case, he respectfully disagrees."
Mr. Bennett and Mr. Lieberman have for three years presented the "Silver Sewer" awards to entertainment companies that make movies and videos with gratuitous sex and violence.
Mr. Bennett acknowledged that his remarks represent a break with his friend.
"It's a break, but I didn't make it," said Mr. Bennett. "He's changed. I've watched and I gave him the benefit of the doubt and, as I think a friend should, instinctively defended him. But it gets harder and harder, and I think I can no more, particularly on this issue, given what happened at this Hollywood party."
"We were not 'nudging' the industry, we are shaming the industry. You know, talking about it in D.C. is one thing, but what's required for consistency is to talk the talk, [and] walk the walk when you're there."
Mr. Lieberman, he said, was once was such an avowed critic of Hollywood excess that he "talked about the inevitability of legislation. And now he has spoken in such a soft voice, so sotto voce, that he's barely audible."
Last September, Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Bennett presented a "Silver Sewer" award to the Fox television network.
"The network has not yet worked its way up to a naked live execution," Mr. Lieberman said at that time, "but viewers will see plenty of crass displays of nudity."
Mr. Bennett said yesterday that it will be "a lot harder to work together" with Mr. Lieberman if Mr. Bush wins the presidency Nov. 7. "I just think [Mr. Lieberman] suffered a big loss of credibility here."
Mr. Lieberman said last month that he would continue "standing with the people against the powerful" in Hollywood. But if elected vice president, he will no longer distribute "Silver Sewer" awards.
"Not that this is a backing down," Mr. Lieberman said on NBC's "Meet the Press," "but I think there are certain things that a vice president doesn't do that a senator can do."
Mr. Bennett gave Mr. Lieberman some leeway last month in an interview with The Washington Times.
Mr. Bennett said that while his friend has "wiggled on a few things" since being tapped by Mr. Gore, he had refused to jettison his core convictions. "Anybody who's vice president has to do this Jack Kemp had to do it.
"I'm trying to have sympathy for a guy who has to try to lean his position in the direction of the person who's at the top of the ticket."
Andrew Cain in Washington contributed to this report.

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